Secessionism threatens to upset democratic progress in Bosnia and Herzegovina



Milorad Dodik, a Serbian member of the three-person presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, poses the most serious secessionist threat to the country since the end of the Bosnian war twenty-six years ago. The current crisis threatens to undo the painstaking progress made towards creating a functional country that began with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) on November 21, 1995.

The DPA ended the Bosnian war, which killed 100,000 people, displaced some 2.2 million from their homes and divided the country into two entities: the predominantly Serb Republika Srpska which occupies 49% of the territory and the Federation majority Bosnian and Croatian from Bosnia and Herzegovina. While post-war progress was slow due to national and regional forces attempting to further divide the country, it nonetheless came from the gradual strengthening of common state-level institutions that were necessary to preserve the territorial integrity of the country. The unification of the three disparate armies that clashed during the Bosnian War into the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina in December 2005 marked a culmination of this process.

But Dodik, once hailed by Madeleine Albright as a “breath of fresh air” in the Balkans and the Serb who has positioned himself as a moderate alternative to the hard-line nationalist of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) in the aftermath of the war of Bosnia, is now mounting the most credible threat to the dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He recently threatened to overturn all decisions relating to the transfer of authority from Republika Srpska to the highest level of government due to the enactment in July of a law prohibiting the denial of the Srebrenica genocide of Bosnians by the military. Bosnian Serbs in 1995.

This threat demonstrates Dodik’s radical transformation from a moderate politician who admitted the Srebrenica genocide to a die-hard nationalist who opened a student accommodation center named after Radovan Karadžić, the founder of the SDS as the Tribunal International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for his role in the Bosnian war.

Following up on this threat would effectively dissolve Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dodik intends to overturn 140 laws related to decisions made by the Office of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina (OHR), the international peace envoy with the sole power to pass laws when the local parties are unwilling to act. The aim of the cancellation proposed by Dodik is to return control of institutions at the state level to the Republika Srpska at the entity level, essentially redefining the country at its composition in 1995 when the DPA was signed.

Among the proposed changes is the repeal of laws establishing the state-level judiciary, the intelligence agency, the tax administration, the armed forces and other institutions. While all of these proposed changes are worrisome as they would cripple the country’s ability to function, dismantling the armed forces is the most dangerous. The threat of this action is particularly poignant in a country whose people have suffered some of the worst war crimes on European soil since World War II. Not only would the disbandment of the army increase concerns and the potential for future conflicts, it would also deal a devastating blow to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s post-war progress by depriving it of its greatest achievement.

Who supports Dodik?

Dodik knows that the future of Bosnia is subject to regional and international power agreements, and these agreements seem more favorable than ever to his goals. Russia, its most powerful supporter, no longer has many absolute allies in the Western Balkans. The accession of Montenegro and North Macedonia to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has increased the importance of Russia’s relations with Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the only two countries in the Balkans Westerners not to be part of NATO.

While the Kremlin’s relationship with the current Serbian regime is not as ideal as it seems at first glance, Russia’s veto in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is crucial for Serbia in the Kosovo conflict. , allowing Russia to exert influence on Serbia’s foreign policy vis-à-vis NATO and the European Union (EU).

With regard to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia is aware that complex decision-making procedures allow representatives of each of its three “constituent peoples”, Bosnians, Croats and Serbs, to block any decision they deem unfavorable. Therefore, by maintaining close relations with the authorities of Republika Srpska and by fomenting ethnic tensions, Russia knows that it is impossible for the country to adopt a foreign policy that opposes Russian interests.

The existence of the OHR is the biggest obstacle to this Russian strategy, as the main objective of the institution is to counter threats to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is why Russia and China have tried to strip the office of its powers and shut it down. Although they failed in this effort, Russia and China only agreed to the extension of a small EU peacekeeping force in Bosnia and Herzegovina on condition that the resolution before the UN Security Council removes all mention of OHR. Russia and Dodik argue that the OHR is illegitimate without the explicit approval of the United Nations Security Council. On the other hand, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić met the High Representative in September this year amid allegations by Russia and Dodik about his illegitimacy. This meeting illustrates Vučić’s two-sided effort to maintain the illusion of Serbia’s European path while preserving good relations with Russia.

When it comes to Republika Srpska, it’s no secret that Dodik would like his status to be inextricably linked to the Kosovo issue – whatever Serbia loses in Kosovo, it will gain it in Republika Srpska. While this outcome could conveniently repair the image of Vučić’s regime facing potential losses in a far from optimal situation in Kosovo, it could also mean that it would replace one problem with another: a serious conflict arising in Bosnia. Vučić only wants the Bosnian crisis to worsen to the extent that it would benefit his regime, but there is reason to believe that Dodik, emboldened by Russia, could make it worse than that. In this case, not supporting the Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia would not be good for Vučić’s domestic political image.

Ironically, Vučić’s political course was the reverse of Dodik’s. Vučić began his political career in the far-right Serbian Radical Party with the avowed aim of creating the Greater Serbia, a state incorporating all areas of traditional importance to Serbs. During the Bosnian War, he was filmed visiting the Serbian forces which besieged Sarajevo for 1,425 days. He was also infamous Minister of Information from 1998 to 2000 in the Serbian nationalist regime of Slobodan MiloÅ¡ević. Yet since his return to government in 2012, he has positioned himself as a moderate politician standing in the way of more radical national political forces.

However, democratic standards, especially media freedoms, suffered during Vučić’s reign. Despite its negative record on normative values, the EU is keen to promote itself in the Western Balkans and has been very tolerant of Vučić. Populist authoritarian rulers at the helm of EU countries like Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia have certainly contributed to the EU’s tolerance of Vučić, but should not be confused with the only reason.

It is the international camaraderie between right-wing populist forces that distinguishes Dodik’s position from that of the Bosnian Serb secessionists in the early 1990s. His appearance at the Fourth Demographic Summit in Budapest alongside Vučić and the populist leaders of the Czechia, Hungary and Slovenia is an undeniable sign that he is part of a “club”. Despite secessionist threats from Dodik and EU efforts to get him to “come back”, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited Dodik, then Dodik traveled to Slovenia where he met with Prime Minister Janez JanÅ¡a . Neither leader concealed his sympathies for Dodik; Orban’s visit was particularly revealing as he did not visit the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo, but instead met Dodik in Banja Luka, the de facto capital of Republika Srpska. Because Dodik has allies in some EU countries, he has managed to evade EU sanctions, if not entirely, at least largely.

What is the next?

The EU should be the main actor in solving the problems in the Western Balkans, including the threat of secession in Bosnia and Herzegovina. At least on paper, every country in the region aspires to become a member of the EU. Yet the bloc did not act decisively to show Dodik that there is no room for secessionism in Bosnia. Unlike the EU, the US has acted decisively in the past. He imposed travel and financial sanctions on Dodik in 2017, citing his obstruction of DPA implementation amid calls for the Republika Srpska’s withdrawal from the armed forces and his challenge to the constitutional court. Had the EU followed suit and adopted similar sanctions, one might wonder whether Dodik would now consider a similar threat.

Dodik’s new push for secession does not indicate that the sanctions are having no effect; rather, it indicates the need for a coordinated response from the US and the EU. Both are expected to impose new sanctions that would target companies close to Dodik and his government. Considering that the EU is unlikely to adopt unanimous bloc-wide sanctions, member countries willing to impose sanctions should do so. Even if such sanctions ultimately fail to get Dodik back on his secessionist threat, they are worth implementing. For the United States, sanctions are currently preferable to putting NATO boots on the ground as a physical guarantor of peace. Moreover, the sanctions are certainly worth a try to move the country away from the brink of a new conflict and preserve the post-war progress made by Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1995.



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